We’ve all seen it in the movies and on TV: the boilerplate villain, often faceless, sitting in a large leather chair with a fluffy (yet menacing) white cat in his lap. The image is so ingrained in our entertainment that we all instantly understood the joke the first time we saw Dr. Evil in Austin Powers. (Okay, I may be aging myself with that one.)
There are numerous examples of one-dimensional villains in entertainment whose only clear motivation is to stop the heroes or wreak havoc on the world. Yet there’s nothing intriguing about a bad guy who only exists to act as a plot device and a foil for the hero.
As writers, it’s our job to create multidimensional characters who our readers can connect with. This includes villains. Without well-rounded villains, stories lose their resonance. Our bad guys need more than just a rabid desire to win. Why do they want to win? What’s their backstory? What would motivate them to go all-in on the Dark Side?
In my opinion, the cardinal rule of writing multidimensional villains is to humanize them. Let’s talk about how to do that effectively.
**Spoiler alert: I’ll be talking about villain arcs from films and books such as Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Star Wars, and The Dark Knight. If you don’t already know the stories but don’t want to be spoiled, you might want to click away now.**
1. Give them clear motivations and desires.
In a good story, all of your characters want at least one specific thing. That desire is what drives their actions, reactions, and interactions throughout your story. When you’re working out the driving force behind your main characters, don’t forget to include your villain(s) in the mix.
A villain may clash with the hero, but there should be clear reasons why. In a nutshell, your hero and villain are at odds because they want different things. So what do they want? Dig deep to figure out what works best and raises the highest stakes for your story.
2. Explore their origins.
Exploring your villain’s origin story is another way to hook your readers and make them truly care about the bad guy. In life as in fiction, many individuals who choose a dark path do so in response to common human experiences. The key is in the response.
In The Dark Knight, Joker (Heath Ledger) gives us a glimpse of the horrific abuse he endured at his father’s hands as a child. He allowed that abusive past to fuel his rise to a life of crime and terror, and though the past he has chosen is horrific, that look at his past gives us a greater understanding of why he became Joker.
In the Star Wars sequel trilogy, we’re introduced to Ben Solo (or Kylo Ren), son of Han Solo and Princess Leia and grandson of Darth Vader. We learn that Ben grew up with an incredibly heavy weight on his shoulders, both from the Light and Dark sides of the Force. He carries a legacy of both great good and great evil, but he feels rejected by those who should have loved him and instead embraces his dark heritage.
3. Expose their weaknesses.
Reveal your villain’s vulnerabilities. Everyone has them–even (maybe especially) your antagonists. Weaknesses produce missteps, and most villains make at least one fatal misstep that leads to their downfall.
When you know what makes your villain vulnerable, you can build that weakness into your story. Maybe it gives your hero the upper hand, or perhaps it forces your villain to back down and concede victory. Whatever it is, make it believable–and if it induces empathy in your reader, even better.
4. Uncover their deepest fears.
Fear is a major driving force that pushes evil characters further down their dark path and makes them cling harder to the choices they’ve made. Perhaps your villain started out as a good person, but ended up on this path in response to some deep fear.
In the Star Wars prequel trilogy, we first see Anakin Skywalker as a passionate, hot-headed Jedi apprentice who is scarred by the loss of his mother. That loss gradually turns to deeply-rooted fear as he grows into adulthood and begins having premonitions of his wife, Padme’s death. When the evil emperor promises Anakin that the Dark Side can save Padme, Anakin reluctantly turns to evil. The cruel irony is that his turn down the dark path leads directly to her death, rather than saving her.
5. Reveal their capacity for love.
Despite their capacity for great evil, many villains are fully capable of love–in their own way, of course. Showing your villain’s capacity for love offers your readers yet another opportunity to understand and connect with them.
Think about Severus Snape in Harry Potter. Yes, Snape terrorizes Harry and his friends for years–but he also protects them when push comes to shove. He’s a difficult character to relate to…until we learn that he loved Harry’s mother when they were young. His love for Lily Potter drives his actions all the way until the end of his life, and that helps us to understand the complex mixture of emotional motivation that drives his behavior toward Harry (both good and bad).
After spending years attempting to surpass Darth Vader’s evil legacy, Ben Solo (my favorite “villain”, if you can’t tell) is thrown off-course by Rey, a young Force-sensitive scavenger who crosses his path in The Force Awakens. Though the romantic subplot of the Star Wars sequel trilogy is subtle and nuanced, Ben Solo is eventually redeemed because of his love for Rey, in addition to his love for his parents. He has a tremendous capacity for love, which is what makes him so intriguing as a character on a villain-to-hero arc.
6. Explore potential paths to redemption.
When executed well, I think a good villain redemption arc is one of the best story devices, hands down. As Jenn Bailey said in her recent Storymakers Conference presentation, “Redeeming Your Villain”, it’s not necessarily about making a villain flip from evil to good. Instead, a strong redemption equalizes your villain and your hero in some way.
In addition to Severus Snape and Kylo Ren, I love the redemption of President Snow in The Hunger Games. His arc is a curious one, from cold-blooded villain to eventual antihero. Snow’s role throughout Mockingjay is to slowly reveal to Katniss that the warring leaders of Panem all had similar agendas. Though Snow never truly “comes to the light”, he gives Katniss the tools she needs to determine that incumbent President Coin is no better, and will bring the same havoc and suffering to Panem as Snow did.
How will you make your villains multidimensional?
Giving your villains a greater measure of humanity and nuance makes them more human and believable, both to you and your readers. As a writer, if you can believe in and connect the villain on the same level as the rest of your characters, it will be much easier to bring them fully to life.
If you need someone to talk through your villain’s character development or arc, get in touch with us. We love to hash out character motivations, plot, and story structure to help make your stories more compelling and engaging. Want more info? Get it here.